The Electoral College is an abomination: an antidemocratic relic of the unconscionable compromises made during America’s founding that should never have been allowed to linger into the 21st century. Designed to thwart the will of the people on those occasions when the voters might favor a candidate with what Alexander Hamilton described as the “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” the Electoral College has evolved as a uniquely destructive barrier to the modern practice of democracy.
Hamilton and others imagined that an elite institution of electors would ensure “a constant probability of seeing the [presidency] filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” While that statement may intrigue #NeverTrumpers seeking one last avenue for averting a reality-TV presidency, the Electoral College has never operated as a quality-assurance mechanism: Superior contenders have often been rejected by partisan electors. Nor does it function in any way as an egalitarian institution, given its nsychant for overturning the popular will. If this foul remnant of 18th-century oligarchy (and the fears of Southern politicians that democracy might undermine the power of slave states) isn’t abolished or, at the very least, constrained, there is good reason to believe the College will continue to do so with greater frequency in the years to come.
This is no idle threat. For the second time in 16 years, the winner of the national popular vote will be denied the presidency by an institution that rejects the basic premise used to elect everyone from members of local school boards to members of Congress. This year’s rejection is epic in scope and nature: If it was objectionable that George W. Bush became president despite being defeated by Al Gore in 2000 by a margin of 543,895 votes, then it should be considered outrageous that Donald Trump will assume the presidency despite losing to Hillary Clinton by at least 2.2 million votes—and claim a mandate, along with his Republican allies, to radically change America.
Clinton’s popular-vote lead is greater than those that put John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and, of course, George W. Bush in the White House. But Clinton’s victory is rendered meaningless by an institution that Trump himself once identified as “a disaster for democracy.”
Under the College’s flawed calculus, a candidate who is beaten convincingly in the national popular vote can still prevail with narrow wins in a handful of competitive states. In Michigan, for example, Trump led Clinton by less than 11,000 votes out of 4.8 million cast, and yet he received all 16 of the state’s electoral votes. And here’s the truly frustrating reality: Different states have different systems for casting, counting, and recounting votes. Without an absolute guarantee of voting rights and an assurance that votes are cast and counted according to a single national standard, the electoral pathologies of individual states will continue to warp the Electoral College in ways that define the race for the presidency.